PORT MORESBY (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Friday said the horrors of war must never be repeated as he visited a World War II battlefield in Pacific nation Papua New Guinea.
As many as 200,000 Japanese soldiers died during the brutal New Guinea campaign and Abe headed to the northern town of Wewak to honour all those who perished, where he was greeted by thousands of well-wishers.
He was also due to visit Cape Wom, the site of the Japanese Army's surrender in PNG on the final day of a Pacific swing that also took him to New Zealand and Australia.
"We must not repeat the horrors of the war," he said after laying flowers at a memorial, the Kyodo News agency reported.
"I pledged in front of the spirits of the war dead that Japan wants to be a country that thinks about world peace with its friends in Asia and around the world."
His comments come at a time of heightened regional tension over Japan's wartime record, with China and South Korea in particular raising concerns that Abe's right-wing government is failing to face up to the country's history of aggression.
Both China and South Korea were the object of Japan's imperialist aggression in the 20th century and were outraged last year when Abe paid homage at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war dead including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II.
Japan's use of sex slaves during its colonial expansion across Asia also still rankles China and South Korea.
While mainstream Japanese opinion holds that the wartime government was culpable, a small but vocal tranche of the political right - including Abe - continues to cast doubt, claiming the brothels were staffed by professional prostitutes.
Abe's comments in PNG echoed those made in Australia during a historic address to a joint sitting of parliament in which he said Japan "is determined to do more to enhance peace in the region and peace in the world".
The remarks came just days after Japan relaxed restrictions on the use of its armed forces in a controversial change in military policy that irked China.
Tokyo has formally endorsed a reinterpretation of a constitutional clause banning the use of armed force except in very narrowly-defined circumstances.
Beijing argued that it could open the door to remilitarisation of a country it considers insufficiently penitent for its actions in World War II.
Abe was making the first trip to PNG by a Japanese leader in nearly 30 years, accompanied by a large business delegation.
The Pacific nation is emerging as an important energy source for Japan as it continues to grapple with the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident, which was caused by a huge earthquake and the resulting tsunami in March 2011.
In the capital Port Moresby on Thursday evening, Abe pledged 20 billion yen (S$245 million) in assistance to PNG over the next three years.
"We could not have a more reliable friend," said PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.
"Japan is a very strong development partner to PNG and a strong development partner to the Pacific countries."